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Congressman in tight race sues over ranked-voting system

November 13, 2018
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U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine, speaks at a news conference, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, in Augusta, Maine. Poliquin filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap in an attempt to stop a tabulation of ranked-choice ballots in his race against Democratic challenger Jared Golden. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Fighting for political survival, Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin joined a lawsuit Tuesday seeking to overturn Maine’s new voting system, used for the first time last week in U.S. House and Senate elections.

The lawsuit asks a federal judge to stop the vote tabulations and to declare ranked-choice voting to be unconstitutional, clearing the way for Poliquin to be declared the victor. The secretary of state declined a separate request to stop the election process without a court order.

The first round of voting on Election Day ended with Poliquin and Democrat Jared Golden both collecting 46 percent of the vote in Maine’s huge, largely rural 2nd Congressional District, with Poliquin maintaining a slim edge of about 2,000 votes in unofficial returns.

“I won the election fair and square,” Poliquin said Tuesday, declaring the lawsuit is necessary to test the constitutionality of the voting system.

In the lawsuit, Poliquin, who is seeking a third term, and three Republican activists contend he should be declared the winner because he has the most first-place votes. But the ranked-choice system requires additional voting rounds because neither he nor Golden won an outright majority.

The lawsuit says the “foundation of our ‘democratic process’ is the right of all qualified voters to cast their votes effectively.” It suggests that the ranked voting system “denies Plaintiffs the opportunity to cast their votes effectively.”

The lawsuit makes several arguments, including that the voting system violates the “one-person, one-vote” principle, violating the Equal Protection Clause.

Poliquin’s Democratic challenger decried the 11th-hour attempt to derail the process following the most expensive congressional race in Maine history.

“Any attempt by Bruce Poliquin to change the rules after votes have already been cast is an affront to the law and to the people of Maine,” Jon Breed, Golden’s campaign manager, said in a statement Tuesday. If Poliquin were really concerned, Breed said, he should have sued before the election.

Poliquin’s lead attorney, former Federal Election Commission Chairman Lee Goodman, brushed aside concerns about the timing of the lawsuit. He said it wasn’t filed sooner because it was unclear whether additional tabulations were going to be necessary to determine a winner.

Democratic Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said that his office would continue to process ballots and that it would review with legal advisers any court order to stop. Election workers had more than 100 towns to go by midday Tuesday, he said.

Supporters argue the system already has cleared legal challenges. Several courts, including the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, have upheld the constitutionality of ranked-choice voting, supporters said.

“We’re seeing these kinds of post-election sore loser lawsuits across the country,” said Rob Richie, of FairVote, an electoral reform group that pressed for Maine’s adoption of the system.

Poliquin, however, insisted the lawsuit is not just about sour grapes over the possibility Golden could walk away as the winner. He said it’s his “duty” to test the system at the federal level.

“Not addressing this important constitutional matter would be completely irresponsible and not doing my job,” he said.

The ranked-choice voting system approved by referendum in 2016 lets voters rank candidates from first to last on the ballot. It provides for eliminations of last-place candidates and reallocations of votes to ensure that the winner gets a majority.

The system is touted as a way to let people caste votes for third-party or independent candidates without concern for political “spoilers” or vote-splitting. Critics, including Poliquin, say it’s confusing.

Last-place candidates are eliminated one by one if no one receives a majority of the vote. Then the losers’ second-choice votes are counted. The process can be repeated as many times as is necessary until there’s a majority winner.

In this case, two independents in the four-way race who together collected about 8 percent of the vote will be eliminated, and it’s possible the reallocation of votes could end up favoring Golden even though he did not collect the most first-round votes.

For now, the system is used only in federal races and in statewide primary elections in Maine. It cannot be used in the governor’s race or legislative races because of concerns it runs afoul of the Maine Constitution.

Democratic Gov.-elect Janet Mills has vowed to seek to amend the constitution so the system can be used in all elections.

There was no controversy in Maine’s other House race and Senate race. Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree and independent Sen. Angus King each won with a majority of the vote, making further tabulations unnecessary.

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Sharp reported from Portland, Maine. Associated Press writer Patrick Whittle in Portland contributed to this report.

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